1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Colman the Younger

Anonymous, "On the Genius of Colman" The Minerva [New York] NS 3 (23 July 1825) 251-52.



Is Colman also among the poets? And why not, my singular good friend? What have you to urge why he should not rank with the best of them? Did you ever read one of his poems, or see one of his plays without laughing? If you ever did, the weeping philosopher of old was a merrier fellow, for his risible muscles would have been excited long before he had got through a single Broad Grin. But you will probably say, that Colman chooses low and unworthy subjects for his Muse; that he continually trifles with his reader; that he has no higher object in view than to produce mirth; — in short, that he is better fitted for a boon companion, then a grave lecturer. Admit all this, does it destroy his repute as an author? "Not a jot." He never, to be sure, wrote like Byron or Young, with a human skull at his elbow. He does not excruciate the nerves of hysterical ladies or weakly gentlemen, in their grand climacteric, with terrible tales of a tub, with Corsairs, and Giaours, and Harolds, the monstrous abortions of a diseased imagination. He attempts not to vie with Moore in the elegant voluptuousness of his style, nor does he pause with Wordsworth to moralize over every withered daisy or butterfly. The squallidness and misery in which Crabbe delights have no charms for him, and he leaves Southey to the undisturbed enjoyment of his visions; he neither jostles the Ancient Mariner, nor strives with ideal ambition

To break a lance
On the fair fields of old romance

on the talisman of the Great Unknown. But while prudently abstaining from such futile enterprises, he has done what no writer of the age can do half so well. Beguiling us of sorrows, real or imaginary, he has lit up the pale cheek of the mourner with smiles of innocent merriment, filled our leisure moments with amusement at once cheerful and rational, and taught us the secret of despising folly, without malevolence, and admiring virtue without envy. It may be asserted with some appearance of truth, that Colman has written nothing but burlesque poems and five-act farces; but has he, in the peculiar branch of composition which he has chosen, as suited to the developement of his talents, approximated nearly to perfection? Has he accomplished the task he proposed to himself? If he has, we have no right to seek at his hands productions for which the character of his mind has unfitted him.

The agreeable poignancy, which frank, playful, unvenomed satire gives to the plays of Colman, renders them peculiarly fascinating, and our own failings, set before us in the strong light of ridicule, convey reproof from the tongue of mirth, and induce us to think of amendment, without the least feeling of anger towards our monitor. A sermon or an essay, written professedly against some darling foible, is shunned as replete with unpleasant truths; or if read, is read with a disposition to contradict and contemn.

But when at the theatre, in moments of relaxation, we behold duplicates of ourselves, wearing motley indeed, but still sufficiently like to be easily recognised, caricaturing our manners and pursuits, shewing vanity the pitiful effects of its frippery; — pride, the unseemliness of its supercilious airs; and purse-proud wealth, the error of supposing that friendship and esteem are purchaseable commodities; — do we not resolve to correct the vices which excite our disgust when exhibited by others, and form plans for our future conduct, which, though partially forgotten, can scarcely fail to leave some salutary impression? Tell a coquet that her behaviour is immodest and unwomanly, and she will think herself insulted, and deem the animadversion brutal; but set before her, in the glass of the drama, a second self, with all her caprices and deceits odiously prominent, and her amiable qualities thrown into the shade, and if she be worth admonishing, she will benefit by the lesson. Lecture a coxcomb on the unmanly effeminacy of his conduct, and he will either laugh at, or challenge you; — but expose to his observation a Tom Shuffleton or a Bob Acres, he will see resemblance enough to be ashamed of, and if he has any thing excellent in his nature, he will blush and grow wiser. In all his dramas, Colman is the constant and zealous advocate of virtue, and in this respect he far exceeds Sheridan, who, with a brilliancy of wit unequalled among the moderns, too often becomes the apologist of licentiousness. The School for Scandal, which has been considered, and perhaps justly, the most perfect comedy in our language, is disgraced by the laxness of its morality, and the Rivals has little to recommend it in this respect. But our author, even should his judges be chosen from that rigid body of divines, who in their pious zeal against ungodliness, condemned Home for writing the tragedy of Douglas, must be pronounced blameless; for while the elegant eccentricities of his indestructible humour demand and receive the approbation of cultivated minds, and while the oddities of life and character, which he so felicitously brings into one view, arouse the mirthful sensibility of the more obtuse, he preserves a chastity of phrase and a modesty of expression, which, as they demonstrate the superiority of genuine wit over vulgar ribaldry, are the writer's noblest encomium.

With all his excellence, however, there is no single play of Colman's which can be pointed out as a model; the elements of a faultless drama may be found in his productions, — originality of character, vividness of dialogue, and interest of situation, are common to all the better portions of his works, but he seems to have shrunk from the labour of revision, to have obeyed his first impulses, to have followed out the idea of the moment, without much reference to the general effect. And this, while it gives a freshness and raciness to his style, rarely to be met with elsewhere, frequently renders his plots improbable or perplexed, and fixes on his agents the appearance of caricature, which totally destroys the illusion of the scene. Yet why should we quarrel with what is good, because it might have been better? No living author has afforded a tithe of the innocent enjoyment which has been derived from the dramatic compositions of Colman; and what Mohawk of a critic, with inkhorn and goose quill, shall dare to befoul the fair fame of him, who, though the wrinkles of age has covered his own brow, still affords to the young and time joyous-hearted a mode of relaxation from study or business, equally agreeable and salutary.